In 2019, one in 25 students (that’s 4%) admitted to trying adult work or sex work whilst at university. There has been a lot of arguing in the world of academia about how universities should “tackle” this, with students being expelled for it, others being ignored, and some universities even trying to help students who find themselves choosing that line of work to support their studies, like Durham and Brighton.
What is the sex industry?
The sex industry is a huge career field. It essentially covers anything that involves sexual activity, nudity, erotica or arousal. So whether you’re a cam girl or you sell pictures of your feet, you are working in the sex industry.
Why are students working in the sex industry?
A lot of students have found themselves strapped for cash at university, but not wanting to “sell their souls” as such to a retail job where the hours build up and you aren’t always able to work your job around your life. An alternative to this is freelance work. Whilst some students might choose online tutoring or proofreading on Fiverr, some have taken to Twitter, OnlyFans and other potentially weird places to make their extra money.
This year, the English Collective of Prostitutes said that calls to their helpline from young people at university or college have increased by a third. A member of the group has suggested that lockdown was one catalyst for many young people signing up for sites like OnlyFans to sell intimate images of themselves and earn money.
What is Durham doing for their students?
Durham’s student union has advertised to all students and staff a “training opportunity” for “students involved in the adult sex industry” via an email. The advertisement said that the opportunity would provide informed advice.
The email went on to say that “student sex workers should not face any barriers to accessing support which is well informed and free from prejudice. The SU position on students in sex work is clear: support, informed advice, de-stigmatisation and collaboration with expert organisations”.
The training was coordinated with North East Sex Work Forum, a professional group of experts on sex work.
What has the response been to the training?
The training has sparked mixed feelings – many students are supportive of the SU’s decision and stance, grateful that they and their classmates are not being scrutinised for their choices.
Others, like Michelle Donelan, Minister of State, has claimed that the Russell Group university was “badly failing in their duty to protect” students by allowing the training to go ahead, suggesting they are hoping to normalise “selling sex”. Some students have also backed this point of view, claiming the training could “cause a real problem, making it a part of university culture and making work in the sex industry a normalised activity”. Likewise, MP Diane Abbott has said that the university should have “nothing to do” with sex work.
However, despite this backlash, the SU Welfare and Liberation Officer, Jonah Graham, has defended the choice. He said that is “an attempt to support students in a difficulty arising from the reality of rising costs in higher education”, and went on to say how the minister’s comments “show that she fundamentally misunderstands the training”. He then added that the training was also to help staff handle any disclosures about sex work sensitively.
Durham University itself has also defended the SU. They said that the training was to “ensure students can be safe and make informed choices” following an “emerging trend” in students working in the sex industry. In a statement, Durham University explained that, “The University bought in the external Involved in the Adult Sex Industry session in response to requests received over a number of years from a small number of concerned students”, and that “[they] are not emphatically seeking to encourage sex work, but [they] are seeking to provide support”.
Are other universities doing anything similar?
The University of Leicester and The University of Brighton have both faced criticism and backlash after trying to provide support to students who may find themselves involved in sex work. The University of Leicester created an online student sex work toolkit that explained to students the elements of the industry that are illegal and those which aren’t, and The University of Brighton allowed a sex work support group to attend a fresher’s fair a few years ago.